Those who wear black robes in the state’s district court system plan to ask for more green.
Jonathan Jasper, a judge in the Tenth Judicial District who sits on the bench in Anoka, told the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division Wednesday the Minnesota District Judges Association plans to ask the division for a 5 percent salary increase for trial court judges in each year of the 2020-21 biennium.
He said a 2018 economic analysis prepared by economists at St. Catherine University recommends that request. It shows that corporate attorneys with more than 10 years of experience earn 33 percent more than trial judges. That report, requested by the association, also noted that the annual 2.5 percent salary increases for trial judges in the 2018-19 biennium did not keep pace with inflation.
Experienced attorneys who leave private practice make financial sacrifices to become trial judges, Jasper said. Although most trial judges take on the role out of a desire to serve the public, he noted that eventually the financial sacrifice causes many judges to leave the bench earlier than they might have otherwise.
“The further we fall behind, the more sacrifice we are asking people to make, and at what point are we losing good people? We think we are at that point,” Jasper said.
The salary for a Minnesota trial judge is $157,000 per year, which Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), the division chair, noted is uniform throughout the state. Lesch asked whether the higher cost of living in the Twin Cities area makes it harder to fill trial court vacancies there.
Jasper replied that does not appear to hinder recruitment simply because of the large number of attorneys in the potential hiring pool. However, he said that the relative scarcity of attorneys in Greater Minnesota makes it very difficult to fill judicial vacancies there.
Jasper, who serves on the association’s Pension and Benefits Committee, also reported that the relatively low salaries for trial judges means less money is being placed in pension plans for retiring judges.
“All of our pensions are underfunded right now,” he said.
The situation has improved in recent years, Jasper said, due to several remedies, including trial judges in previous years putting 1 percent of their pay raises into the pension fund.
Still, he noted, with retiring judges living longer, the pension fund is not as strong as it should be.